Even to this day, the most premium Digital Audio Players (DAPs) are never sleek, compact marvels of digital circuitry. So it should not alarm you that the Astell & Kern KANN Alpha looks as chunky as it does.
Buying an expensive DAP is tantamount to a lifestyle change – you have to invest in pair of high-end headphones, high-quality copies of music, which is a notable investment of money, if not time spent to find what you like. The cruel fate of the audiophile is that he or she, more often than not, ends up listening to the equipment more than the music. Yes, things do get expensive real quick.
Astell & Kern (A&K) are arguably the most famous of the audiophile-grade DAP makers, and their offerings are often premium-grade luxury devices. The KANN Alpha is no different with its canvas of aggressive lines juxtaposed by brushed and polished surfaces. It looks expensive and it wants you to know it.
The only physical controls come in the form of three buttons on the side for basic playback (play/pause, forward and back) and a rotary dial that controls volume. An LED within emanates a soft coloured glow that corresponds to the bitrate of the file you are playing as well; e.g. red for 16-bit, purple for DSD. If you have average-sized hands the KANN Alpha should fit nicely and you have both controls at your fingertips. But this DAP is neither small nor lightweight, so that’s something to think about. Fortunately, it sounds good enough to warrant the hassle.
A 4.1", HD resolution display stretches across the face of the player, and thankfully, the touchscreen is responsive enough for a non-smartphone device. The KANN Alpha essentially runs on an Android-based OS and hence, navigating its menus evokes a sense of familiarity. This DAP represents a middle-of-the-road offering where the tech world and traditional Hi-Fi meet. Software is often a tricky beast to navigate, but A&K has done a fair enough job here as far as basic operations are concerned.
At the heart of the KANN lies a pair of ESS Sabre ES9066AS DACs. For those who aren’t familiar with audiophile players, the DAC is just one part of the equation, so the output is dependent on the rest of the system design, such as power circuits and what they do physically to minimise electrical noise and the like (hence the chunky shell). But the ES9066As are what gives the player the ability to play MQA music along with regular high-resolution formats up to DSD256. The player has 64GB of storage built-in, but it also has a microSD slot that supports up to 1TB cards. And you’ll certainly need the extra storage with the file sizes we’re talking about here.
The KANN is Bluetooth 5.0 enabled and supports LDAC and aptX codecs as well, so if you decide for convenience and want a wireless day – you have that option as well. For me at least, it’s not necessarily the ideal way to experience the KANN, but high bandwidth Bluetooth transmission has improved enough to be considered an alternative.
When it comes to wired connections, the KANN offers a regular 3.5mm jack, balanced outputs – 2.5mm and 4.4mm (its first balanced NDICS Pentaconn output) – along with the option to use the player as a DAC for your computer via the USB-C port. It has a maximum of 12 Vrms output (no load), meaning that there’s no need for an additional external amplifier and it will have enough power for most headphones that you are willing to bring outdoors. The KANN offers low-, mid-, and high-gain settings so you can tweak to taste or to the requirements of your headphones.
Understandably, much of this is simply gobbledygook to non-audiophile readers, but the good news is that you don’t need to be a headphone nerd to enjoy these pleasures. Most of the time, you simply adjust the settings until a smile stretches across your face. Ultimately, it is a matter of preference. The KANN Alpha has been designed to be very user-friendly, bordering on a mainstream device. So how does it fare in that regard? Almost there, but just a couple of tweaks short.
Navigating is simple enough and because it’s primarily Android, we won’t take too long to get used to it. It’s easy to figure out where everything is since the menus are similar and right off the bat you can start burrowing deep into the settings to see what you can do with the player. I have no major complaints about the UI, though I have to say the time bar for track playing is curiously small – scrubbing through a song isn’t always the easiest thing in the world. It’s not a smartphone either, so you can’t expect the same silky smooth response from an 800 series Snapdragon device; but it’s good enough.
The KANN Alpha natively supports Deezer, Tidal and YouTube (via V-Link) and the apps come pre-installed. Other popular services like Apple Music and Qobuz are supported but you’ll need to sideload them. The caveat, of course, is that these sideloaded apps may not always work – or they work until an update breaks it. If I’m honest, I pretty much wrote off its streaming capabilities even before I opened the box. But it’s not as bad as I thought it was, yet it’s not something I would recommend to anyone as a primary feature either.
Ultimately, audio quality is the bread and butter of the KANN Alpha and in this respect, it certainly justifies ponying up for the higher resolution audio files. Featuring an extensive low end and a refined high end coupled with impressive expanse – this is like 360 audio without the tech. It’s all very natural sounding and it handles heavily layered tracks like a charm. Needless to say, your headphones need to be up to scratch, preferably one with an extended frequency range (something that stretches way beyond the usual 20-20,000Hz). For example, an older Sennheiser HD 650 might sound amazing with the KANN Alpha, but it has nothing on the audibly more proficient Beyerdynamic T1.
Admittedly, the T1 is a more expensive headphone, but it gives you a measure of the kind of gear the KANN Alpha was designed for. A&K players have a very distinct character and the KANN Alpha is no different. Tight and responsive, with rich low end and controlled detailed trebles. Battery life is fairly respectable and I average at least 12 hours of continuous listening, through a mixture of mid and high gain settings. It should vary somewhat depending on the power draw of your headphones, but the long and the short of it is that battery life isn’t something you worry about here.
So the question is, is the KANN Alpha worth the $1,699 price tag? The budget-conscious audiophile would say no, for there are many cost-efficient alternatives out there. But for its form factor and feature set, the A&K tax is well worth it if the sound quality (and sound signature) is something you are not willing to compromise.
Astell & Kern KANN Alpha
Features - 9/10
Value Proposition - 6/10
Performance - 9/10
Design & Build Quality - 9/10
Overall - 8/10
Even though the price is also a reflection of the branding, the KANN Alpha will tempt you with its excellent performance.